Friday Night Lights.
It's 1988. It's west Texas, and hopes are high in the town of Odessa where the local high school, Permian, has an epic tradition of success on the football field with the Panthers. Expectations are especially high this year for head coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) for the upcoming '88 season. The team is incredibly talented, returning a bunch of veterans, but most importantly star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), a no-doubt future star in college and possibly the NFL. That seemingly perfect season though is undone almost immediately as Miles seriously hurts his knee in the Panthers' first game. Now, Gaines and the entire team must band together to figure something out, to turn things around and do it quickly. It isn't just pressure from within though. The entire town is putting a pressure over the team and program that hangs above the players and coaches like a dark cloud. Can they overcome?
'Friday' is based off the book of the same name by author H.G. Bissinger. He followed the team throughout the 1988 season, eventually writing the book that went on to become a lightning rod for good and bad. The book became more than just a story about sports, but about a west Texas town madly in love, devoted in obsessed fashion to their Permian Panthers. It delved into racism, politics and all sorts of deep-seeded topics. The movie streamlines much of those topics, zeroing in on the football, the head coach and the players who feel so much pressure to win and win big. Emotionally effective, often uncomfortably realistic, it's a gem.
Actor-turned-director Peter Berg has quietly built himself more than a solid reputation behind the camera over the years. This is his best work that I've seen. He films with confidence, giving the film a visual look that's incredibly appealing. During the football action, it is always on the move, with the players and coaches in quick, hard-hitting sequences. The colors are almost washed out, emphasizing Permian's iconic black and white -- simple, straightforward and classic -- uniforms. There are some touches that add that late 1980's feel but never to the point where you feel like you've been hit over the head with the idea. Just some jean jackets and bad hairdos and we're moving on. And also, the soundtrack from Explosions in the Sky, a post-rock band from Texas, the music quasi-trance, quasi-electronic but blending with the story in almost effortless fashion. An underrated, highly memorable score.
Three performances stand out from a uniformly positive cast. Thornton is a gem as Coach Gaines, a talented, bright coach who feels the weight of the town on his shoulders. A snide dig here, a menacing throwaway comment here. He pushes his players and pushes but knows when to pull back a little. Next up, Lucas Black as Mike Winchell, the QB who struggles with pressure and is just a nice, quiet kid who happens to be a good football player. Gaines and Winchelll's relationship is fascinating, coach-quarterback with a touch of father-son mentality. Black is a subtle scene-stealer here, Winchell always being my favorite. Last but not least, Luke as Boobie Miles, the star running back with confidence and cockiness to burn. It's only after his injury we see the true Boobie, including a heartbreaking scene with his uncle, L.V. (Grover Coulson).
The focus is on a handful of players so also look for Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), the fullback who struggles with fumbles, Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez), the safety who's already been accepted to Harvard, Ivory Christian (Lee Jackson), the almost silent defensive end dubbed 'Preacher,' and Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young), the third string running back thrust into a far bigger role when Boobie goes down. Also look for Connie Britton as Sharon, Gary's wife who supports her husband through thick and thin.
As a sports movie, 'Friday' is epically successful. What helps it rise above so many other like-minded sports movies is the portrayal of the town and the pressure placed on these high school football players, just teenage boys when it comes down to it. It is almost a cult, an obsessed following begging the kids to win...but it's more than begging. It is an obsession that pushes everyone involved with the program to the brink. Any and every sports team ever WANTS to win, but that is an inward pressure. This is a community that lives and dies with the Panthers, almost defying them to lose. We see that in most frightening fashion in Don's father, played to creepy perfection by Tim McGraw.
Too many good moments to mention. The football scenes crackle with energy and adrenaline. Thornton's Gaines delivers one great speech after another, especially in the finale pre-game. My favorite has him quietly delivering a message to Winchell before a key turning point, smiling and stating "There ain't no curse." Boobie's breakdown with his uncle is heartbreaking as we finally see who he is, not all the sports cockiness. Mike's continuing struggle to live up to expectation, and my goodness, that ending. Just too perfect. If there's any advice I can offer, it's this. Don't go looking on Wikipedia for the true story. If you haven't seen it, go in fresh and enjoy the ride throughout. A sports classic.
Friday Night Lights (2004): ****/****